Tuesday, August 20, 2013

"Michigan History in Objects" at the Michigan Historical Museum: Part One

Yesterday, I paid a visit to the Michigan Historical Museum in downtown Lansing, strolling through three floors of exhibits and taking pictures of artifacts that I'm going to briefly describe in this post and in another post tomorrow. It's part of a regular series I'll be running called, "Michigan History in Objects." My plan is to visit museums and historic sites across the state, take photos of their "coolest" items, and publish the pics here with brief descriptions of the roles their subjects played in Michigan history.

(Actually, my plan is to have my husband, and not myself, take the photos, because he's a really good photographer and I, in two words, am not. He wasn't available yesterday, so that means you get to to enjoy the "quality" pics I took using my phone and a shaky understanding of composition and framing.)

Anyway, enough jibber jabber. On to the artifacts!

1. Float Copper

This is a poorly framed, badly lit photo of a piece of float copper from the Keweenaw Peninsula. It's four feet by eight feet in size, and weighs almost 4,000 pounds. Float copper began its life as molten copper that leached from the earth thousands of years ago. During the Ice Age, glaciers "grabbed" the copper and pulled it along, eventually depositing it on the ground once the ice melted.

The largest-known piece of float copper was found in 1997 in Hancock, Michigan, and is now on display at Presque Isle Park in Marquette. It has a diameter of 15 feet, and weighs more than 40 tons.

2. Guidon from the 5th Michigan Cavalry

A guidon is a flag that troops use to identify their units. The 5th Michigan Cavalry used this guidon when its troops lined up for charges during the Civil War.

The 5th Michigan served from 1862 to 1866, and mustered out of Detroit. Until 1863, its soldiers helped defend Washington, D.C. from Confederate invasion. The 5th Michigan also served in major battles like Second Bull Run, Gettysburg, and the Wilderness. In 1864, one of its members, Private John A. Huff, shot and killed Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart during the Battle of Yellow Tavern in Virginia. (Huff himself was shot during battle a few weeks later, and eventually died at his home; he's buried in Macomb County.)

3. Colonial-Era Cannon

Before I describe this artifact, I'll provide some set up. Despite the fact that America gained its independence from Britain in 1783, the battle over the Great Lakes region wasn't over. Britain held onto Detroit for more than ten years after the Revolutionary War ended, handing over the city to the Americans in 1796 only after ending up on the losing side of a series of battles. The British briefly reclaimed Detroit in 1812, but controlled it for only a year before Americans recaptured it.

Now, onto the cannon. Divers found it in the Detroit River near Cobo Center in 1987; since then, several more cannons have been found in the same area. Though no one knows for sure how the cannons ended up in the river, historians believe they were either dumped there when the British left Detroit in 1796, or that they fell off a British ship in 1812.

4. Territorial Capitol Desk

Here's a picture of Stevens T. Mason, Michigan's first governor, in mannequin form. Mason was known as the "Boy Governor" because he became governor of the Michigan Territory in 1834 when he was 22 years old. When Michigan became a state in 1836, he held onto his position. To this day, he remains, at age 23, the youngest state governor in American history.

The desk he's leaning against is one used by the Secretary of State at the Territorial Capitol in Detroit, which served as Michigan's capital city until Lansing took over that position in 1848.

5. "Toledo, Michigan" Box

If you look closely at the bottom of this box, you'll see the faint words, "Toledo, Mich." (Sorry for the glare at the right side of the box. This thing was in a glass case and there was a light shining directly over it, so I couldn't get a good shot.) As I hope most of you are aware, the city of Toledo is located in Ohio, not Michigan. So what's the deal with this box?

In territorial days, boundary lines weren't clearly drawn, so Michigan and Ohio found themselves fighting over a 468-square-foot piece of land, the so-called "Toledo Strip," along their southern and northern borders, respectively. Neither side was willing to back down, so when Michigan applied for statehood, Congress said it would approve the request if Michigan gave up the Toledo Strip and, as a consolation prize, accepted land that eventually became three-quarters of the Upper Peninsula. Michigan accepted, but at the time residents weren't too happy about the bargain. Their tune changed when they discovered the U.P. wasn't a desolate wasteland, but instead contained enough copper, iron, and timber to fuel the state economy for decades.

Check in tomorrow for Part Two of "Michigan History in Objects: Michigan Historical Museum Edition," when I feature artifacts from the more-recent Michigan past.

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